Woman's Mission: Keep Hispanic Youths in School
By The Associated Press | Education Week/Teacher Magazine
December 24, 2008 -- Torrington, Conn. -- Back-to-school time for Maria Gonzalez means Friday evenings in a church basement, surrounded by 30 teens chattering in a mix of English and Spanish.
She pushes them to excel in school, though she is not a teacher. She coaches the students in dance, though she is not a dancer.
Gonzalez, 50, is a Torrington woman who has assigned herself a mission: to improve graduation rates and college attendance of Torrington and Winsted's Hispanic youth. (smf: Torrington is appx 20 mi west of Hartford, CN)
She hauls around a briefcase full of pamphlets about local colleges, job training and healthy relationships. Everywhere she goes, whether to a community meeting or to Wal-Mart, Gonzalez explains what she's doing to people she runs into. She asks community leaders and college professors: "Will you talk to my kids?"
She fears immigrant teens in Torrington and Winsted may be unaware of resources available to them. She worries they believe college is out of reach because they live in poverty or are unsure of the English language. They might need some extra pushing to succeed in school and continue to college.
Gonzalez provides the push.
"Do something so you don't have to be stuck in a factory," she tells them. "You have the opportunity. Take advantage of that."
The problems Gonzalez is trying to tackle might be newer to Torrington, where the immigrant population has taken hold and grown more recently than in other, larger Connecticut cities. But they are familiar problems.
The national Hispanic high school dropout rate is 21 percent compared to the national average of 10 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan Washington-based research center on the nation's Hispanic population.
Additionally, students of color, those from low-income backgrounds and first-generation students are less likely to prepare for, apply for, enroll in and complete postsecondary education, according to the center.
Hispanics more commonly than their white peers have parents without high school diplomas, low family income and siblings who drop out. They're also more likely to be held back in school, have a C or less average, change schools, and become pregnant in high school, according to the center.
Gonzalez started her program, which she calls "Youth Opportunities," in January with a grant of a little more than $3,000. That money has almost entirely run out, spent on things like tutors, buses to college fairs, and a Torrington Twisters game this summer.
She's planning to apply for more money but even without funds she is determined to keep running the program.
"I'm not going to stop," she said.
Students Lack Support at Home
The basement room at Trinity Episcopal Church where Gonzalez and the teenagers meet Friday nights is not particularly inspirational: a few tables, metal folding chairs and brown wall paneling. Yet these gatherings come alive with students laughing and talking, the work of a couple devoted tutors and a steady lineup of guests.
Gonzalez is familiar with the challenges faced by new immigrants. She moved at age 17 with her family from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx, N.Y. In 1991, she moved from New York to Winsted, when hers was one of just a handful of immigrant families in town.
She now lives in Torrington with her two daughters, ages 12 and 22, her granddaughter, 3, and her husband of two years, Jose Abreu. She works as a case manager and social service supervisor at New Opportunities in Torrington, a branch of a Waterbury-based social service agency.
In her work at New Opportunities, Gonzalez sees five to 10 Hispanic students around high school graduation each year who aren't sure what to do next. They usually end up in factories or training to become truck drivers or certified nursing assistants, she said.
"They're going through the whole system, finishing, then going to a factory," Gonzalez said. "A lot of (the students in Youth Opportunities) are in middle school. If we can start with them, we can get them ready so when they go to take college placement tests, they can get in. I hope we can continue and at least be able to have them ready for college."
It's not that she sees college as the only successful path, more that she worries that many of the youth may never fully consider the option.
Torrington's Superintendent of Schools Susan O'Brien says she's confident that the schools are doing what they can to prepare students and send them on to college. She believes the problems stem from home, where many of the students lack support, she said.
"Parents have to be right here as partners," O'Brien said. "We want to reach out to our students, but it starts with mom or mom and dad in the household."
In Torrington, 11.6 percent of the city's public school students were Hispanic in 2007, up from 5.7 percent five years earlier.
More than 10 percent of the city's students spoke a language other than English at home in 2007, up from 6.4 percent five years earlier. Social service providers who work with the city's Hispanic population believe numbers are larger than official counts show.
Gonzalez's weekly meetings are unstructured enough that the teens can socialize and chat, but in general she begins with a group activity, then a guest speaker and ends with lessons in traditional Dominican and Puerto Rican dance, which many of the students are already familiar with.
Throughout the evening, tutors meet with individual students needing help on homework or school projects.
The dance portion of her meetings is meant to help keep students interested in attending. A promise of two hours of school work would likely just turn them away, she said.
On a recent Friday night, most students hadn't yet returned from summer vacation. The seven students who did attend heard a presentation from Frances Moulder, a UConn Torrington sociology professor, who asked them to dissect the meaning of famous quotations such as "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
Danny Diaz, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Torrington Middle School, who would like to go to Harvard and also be a professional baseball player, has a clear idea of why Gonzalez is running the group.
Because of Hispanic students who drop out of school, "people in Torrington think that Hispanics are up to no good," he said. "She's trying to change that."
"It's like a passion job," said Diaz's mother, Dolores Ramirez. They're from the Dominican Republic, though Diaz was born in the United States right after they moved. "I can see that too many kids, they don't have anything to do after school. They're coming here and they want to stay here."
Ramirez said she was early to drop her son off one Friday during the winter and there were already kids standing outside the door in the cold waiting for Gonzalez.
"She is loving," she said. "And all these kids, they love her.
Judge Rejects State Request on Language Program
By The Associated Press | from Education Week
December 22, 2008 – Austin -- A federal judge has rejected the state's request to postpone his order to develop a new language program for the 140,000 students with limited English proficiency in Texas middle schools and high schools.
In a ruling released Friday, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice said the program must be fixed by fall. The state had requested the delay while it appealed the order.
"The time has come to put a halt to the failed secondary English as a Second Language program and monitoring system" in Texas, Justice wrote.
In his original order in July, he said the improvements had to be in place by the start of the 2009-10 school year. A preliminary plan is due Jan. 31.
State officials could still request a stay of Justice's order from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said Justice's original order gave the state more than a year to develop a new plan.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said her panel is exploring legislation to upgrade instruction and improve dropout prevention programs for limited-English students.
"While our elementary school students are doing very well, we recognize there are problems in our high schools that we want to address," Shapiro said in a story in The Dallas Morning News.
Problems related to limited English students include low test scores and high dropout rates.
The House's education leader, Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he will again offer legislation to provide state funding for dual-language immersion programs that would replace traditional bilingual and ESL classes. Under a dual-language program, students learn some subjects in their native languages for half a day and other subjects in English for the other half.
In bilingual education classes, students are taught core subjects in their native languages while they are learning English.
In ESL, students get intensive instruction in English while taking core courses that typically allow limited use of their native languages.